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Omegas and more!

The healthy oils you should be having every day

So what are healthy fats?

“When we talk about healthy fats we are referring to the essential fatty acids – omegas 3 and 6,” says Mai Cass, a nutritional therapist who works in the Fruit ‘n Nut Place in Portlaoise, Co Laois. “They are essential because our body cannot make them – we need to get them from our diet. Convenience is a huge part of the way we eat today and as a result we are eating too much saturated fat, trans fats or processed fats known as hydrogenated fats.”

“People are not getting enough healthy fats in their diets because of busy lifestyles, convenience and processed food and fat-free food,” says Elaine Joyce of Ylang Ylang health store in Westport, Co Mayo. “Many people are not adhering to the seasons, for example in the past people took cod liver oil and good fats in the winter, a time when our bodies need more fats.”

Omega-3 versus omega-6

“Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential to health and wellbeing and we cannot make them in the body,” says Elaine Joyce. “They have to be obtained from our diet. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory benefits and help cardiovascular health and foetal growth, whereas omega-6s help lower cholesterol and support skin and female health.”

“Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for our bodies,” says Mai Cass. “Omega-3 are anti-inflammatory and play a crucial role in preventing heart disease and reducing inflammation. They are usually found in cold water fish, tuna, halibut, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, sardines, and flaxseeds, chai seeds, walnuts, green leafy vegetables such as kale and brussels sprouts. Omega-6 fatty acids are commonly found in today’s modern diet because of its high concentration in fast foods and most people actually have too much omega-6 in their bodies. This can actually increase inflammation.”

“It is important to consume an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3,” says Galway based nutritional therapist Olive Curran who works for PPC. “The ideal ratio is between 4:1 and 3:1 omega-6 to omega-3, but the average person has an intake somewhere between 10:1 to 25:1. This has contributed to the epidemic of modern diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, plus a range of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The best source of omega-3 is oily fish which provides the most beneficial and active fatty acids, commonly referred to as EPA and DHA, responsible for 95% health benefits associated with omega-3. An IPSOS/MRBI survey found that 89% of Irish people are not consuming sufficient oily fish in their diet, so there is often a need to supplement with a high quality fish oil. Omega-3 is also present in the form of Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) in seeds such as flaxseed and hempseed and their oils plus nuts such as walnuts. Healthy omega-6 fats are present in foods such as nuts, seeds, healthy oils such as flaxseed, hempseed, blackcurrant seed, grapeseed and evening primrose. Corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils are also good sources of linoleic acid, but are refined and may be deficient in some nutrients.”

EFAs and inflammation

“Chronic (over a long period) inflammation has been linked to heart disease, cancer and autoimmune problems,” says Mai Cass. “Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce harmful inflammation. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that taking omega-3 fatty acids for six weeks helped decrease the levels of several markers of inflammation in the blood. Essential fatty acids may be especially helpful in the treatment of conditions that are caused by inflammation like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.”

“Essential fatty acids may be very beneficial to conditions brought about by inflammation,” says Elaine Joyce, “for example arthritis and cardiovascular health.”

“Getting the right balance of essential fatty acids is vital in managing inflammation,” says Olive Curran. “The omega-6 fat arachidonic acid present in meat and deep-fried foods mostly sends pro-inflammatory messages, whereas omega-3 helps calm inflammation by sending anti-inflammatory messages. So it is best to lessen your intake of red meats, processed meats, vegetable oils, highly refined foods, deep-fried foods, and fast food.”

EFAs and your brain

“The human brain is 60% fat!” says Mai Cass. “Several studies have found that omega-3 fatty acid consumption is connected with a decreased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that a higher intake of fish which is high in omega-3 fatty acids is associated with more grey matter in the brain, i.e. the type of tissue involved in memory formation, sensory perception and decision making.”

“Fish oils contain two types of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA which are critical for normal brain function and development throughout life,” says Elaine Joyce. “Low levels of omega-3s may lead to brain ageing and contribute to problems in brain function.”

“DHA is a primary structural component of the brain and specifically of the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory, language, abstraction, creativity, judgment, emotion and attention,” says Olive Curran. “People who don’t get enough omega-3s in their diet can become demotivated, disinterested, forgetful and may experience low mood, while serious deficiency can lead to an increased risk of developing conditions such as ADD, dyslexia, depression and Alzheimer’s. It’s also important for teenagers during stressful exam periods. Even taking omega-3 for a couple of weeks can improve memory and cognitive ability, concentration, lead to better sleep and a stronger immune system so that you don’t get run down.”

EFAs and pregnancy

“EFAs are crucial in pregnancy for brain, eye and central nervous system development in a growing baby, especially in the last three months of pregnancy,” says Mai Cass. “However it’s important not to take cod liver or any fish liver oil supplements during pregnancy due to high levels of vitamin A which can be toxic to your baby.”

“Adding essential fatty acids to the diet of a pregnant woman enhances the visual and cognitive development of the baby,” says Elaine Joyce. “They are essential for baby's brain development and support learning and the health and wellbeing of children.”

“During pregnancy, the mother should take omega-3 daily to ensure adequate omega-3 DHA is consumed,” says Olive Curran. “DHA is required for foetal brain and eye development. In infancy, the baby continues to require DHA for brain development.”

EFAs and your heart

“Inflammation in the body can lead to heart disease, strokes, and damage to blood vessels,” says Elaine Joyce. “Omega-3 fatty acids may lower blood pressure, reduce risk of stroke and heart disease and may lower triglycerides.”

“There is more scientific evidence behind the cardiovascular health benefits of fish oil than any other nutritional supplement,” says Olive Curran. “Omega-3s have been found to reduce blood pressure and triglycerides and improve blood circulation. Omega-3 has also been shown to increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, which removes bad cholesterol from the body. Omega-3s also play an important role in thinning the blood and reducing inflammation.”

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